Nouvel Orsay – The New Musee d’Orsay

December 13, 2011 by

Art & Museums, Places to Go, Travel News & Alerts

The wonderful Musée d’Orsay in Paris, home to one of the finest Impressionist and Post Impressionist collections in the world, celebrated its 25th anniversary on 9th December 2011. Marking the occasion, the museum has just undergone a two-year, €20 million refurbishment, the centrepiece of which is the splendid redesign and re-hang of the Impressionist Gallery, the “beating heart of the museum” as Museum President Guy Cogeval puts it. The complete restructuring of Pavillon Amont, the section which houses the gallery, is masterful. “Nouvel Orsay” is born, without the museum actually having had to close at any time.

The Musée d

Musée d’Orsay, situated beside the Seine, is housed in what was once a magnificent railway station (Gare d’Orsay) with a luxury 370 room hotel attached. The original buildings, station and hotel, were remarkably completed in under two years in time to open on 14 July 1900 as part of the Paris World Fair of that year. Mechanization, its early ally, ultimately led to the decline of the station’s functionality with the arrival of rail electrification and by 1939, it had ceased to operate mainline services. In 1945, the building served as a clearing house for prisoners of war and was later a set for Orson Welles’ film “The Trial”, shot in 1962. When questioned about the set for the Franz Kafka inspired film, Welles complained about financial constraints, saying  ” …all I had was that old abandoned railroad station”.

With plans to build a gigantic hotel on the site of that “old abandoned railroad station” well-advanced and with the demolition detonators virtually in place, in 1973 the government of President Pompidou interceded, saved the grand structure by the Seine and initiated what was to become one of Paris’ landmark attractions, providing a showcase for art dating roughly from 1850 to 1905.  Upon completion, the Musee d’Orsay, which opened in 1986, had bridged the art history gap that had existed between the prestigious and more wide ranging classical collections of the Louvre,  and Europe’s largest gallery of modern art,  The Pompidou Centre.

The great open space which confronts you on entering was once the station concourse and it is still significantly lit by the original vast curved glass roof. High above you is the huge gilded clock. At ground level, there is a Babylonian feel to the exterior design of the various rooms which are off the central area. In places, you will find evidence of industry; rivets and girders visible – a reminder of the industry that fuelled the Belle Epoque.

Within these walls exist several floors of art – about 2000 paintings and 600 sculptures. Among the Impressionists and Post Impressionists alone, there are 34 Manets, 86 Monets, 43 Degas, 56 Cezannes, 46 Sisleys, 81 Renoirs, 24 Van Goghs and 24 by Gauguin.

Looking towards the Louvre from inside one of the great clocks

You will be need a little time to see it all! And on the subject of time, you can revive yourself at the brand new Cafe Campana (designed by Humberto and Fernado Campana), situated behind one of the two great external clock faces. Indulge yourself with even more glamor by dining in the thoroughly baroque main restaurant which retains all its decadent splendour dating from the 1900 hotel building.

When heading for the new area, Pavillon Amont, at the far end of the concourse, plan the most comfortable approach to the fifth floor Impressionist Gallery. Use either the lift or the escalator because, on your descent on foot, you must not miss any of the smaller rooms on the any of the four floors . They are absolutely lovely and the curators have used the contributions made by furniture designers and decorative artists to the great Art Nouveau  movement (occurring at the turn of the 19th/20th century). Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolph Loos, Otto Wagner, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Morris and Louis Comfort Tiffany are joined by painters such as Bonnard and Vuillard.

Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’ Herbe” (Lunch on the Grass) quite literally stops you in your tracks on entering The Impressionists Gallery. Take a rest on one of the seats provided for visitors; they are also works of art.! The “Water Block” benches are created by Japanese artist Tokujin Yoshioka. He has  worked for Issey Miyake since 1998 and designed the seats specially for the space.

The large Manet work is so familiar, so vivid and inviting and one is instantly drawn into this picture which scandalized Paris in the 19th century. It’s at this early stage of the gallery that it becomes clear that the “Nouvel Orsay” has triumphed in its re-hang of the collection of Impressionists. “Optical Realism” was their mantra in the redesign and it seems that optimal intervention by lighting experts and decorators has provided us in the 21st century with a near perfect engagement with original works of art which, despite there being many people in the gallery, briefly become our own. The very crafty part of the presentation though seems to be the selection of wall colour. What I saw as a bluish grey sits supportively behind the pictures respectfully aiding illumination.  Brilliant!

On leaving the Impressionists Gallery, notice the information board which thanks benefactors, contributors and supporters who helped to create the collection and very tellingly and most delicately they also mention the “….acquisitions and works accepted by the state in lieu of taxes”. One would imagine in these uncertain economic times in Europe that there ought to be many more similar acquisitions since more traditional methods of tax payment have become rather unpopular.

The whole tantalizing experience of Musée d’Orsay can barely be achieved in a day. After all, the period it represents was one of the most prolific and prodigious in history, let alone just art history, and the museum contains not only the traditional art forms of painting and sculpture but  achievement in photography, architecture, decorative, industrial and applied arts.

The “Nouvel Orsay” project continues unobtrusively within other areas of the Musée d’Orsay probably until 2015 by which time they will deserve another large birthday celebration.

– Martin Mitchell

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